Arsenal’s sign language change spreads love

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The majority of soccer games are mediocre to boring, and before the start of each season, most fans know that their team will spend it in mediocrity. So why do we keep coming back?

Max Parsons has been with Arsenal all his life since the Highbury days – “I used to go with my father but he’s quit, he’s an old man,” he says. “Arsenal is like family to me. And it’s part of my love I have a partner, a son, and I feel like I love Arsenal too. This is my life.” Being deaf has never really made him feel welcome – until now, thanks to the incorporation of British Sign Language into everything that happens on the Emirates’ big screens.

It’s a first for Premier League clubs. Jon Dyster, the club’s Disability Access Manager, says: “We have a British Sign Language interpreter on pitchside for all our content, pre-match and at half-time. So with all the interviews that happen, we have someone explaining exactly what is happening with deaf fans in the stadium and on the big screens.”

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It’s an initiative so brilliantly simple that you wonder why it’s taken so long and why aren’t all the other clubs following suit straight away – even more so when Christopher Clelland listens to him explain what it means to him.

“I’m totally deaf, my first language is British Sign Language,” he says with a joy that moves in intensity. “I’ve been coming to Arsenal Stadium since it opened and I’ve enjoyed it – it’s my number one, I love Arsenal. But a few deaf fans felt left out and I was always missing information… but now I have full access, I can see them on screen or on the pitch. It makes me feel locked in and it’s so positive and so happy. I feel part of the team and part of the family.”

Parsons first saw the signing at the Newcastle game in January. “I thought, ‘Is that real?'” he recalls. “I was shocked, I was speechless – I was really impressed, I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘We’re finally here.’ The interpreter translates English to BSL using facial expressions and heuristics, and we feel more connected to the game because we know what’s going on. It makes us very happy.”

The vibe isn’t just limited to Arsenal’s deaf fans. Both Clelland and Parsons were approached in the ground by people around them, eager to find out what’s going on and share their joy. “People say, wow, it’s amazing,” says Clelland. “I saw people practicing and participating in signing. It’s really nice to see.”

There’s also a strong role model on the pitch: Jorginho taught himself BSL during lockdown and is hosting a video the club is showing ahead of the game explaining why it’s important that BSL is now a recognized language in England , Scotland and Wales is. “It’s incredible,” enthuses Clelland. “It’s really nice to see an Arsenal badge on him and he signs. It’s not stiff. It’s not nervous. It’s very natural and it’s just wow!”

Arsenal are one of the few clubs to send staff to assist disabled fans at every away game, but there is more work to be done elsewhere. “I want others to follow us,” says Clelland, “so all the deaf fans can have the experience we’re getting. Inclusion is a family.”

“One guy can change everything,” said Pablo Sandóval in the Oscar-winning film The secret in her eyes. “His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change, Benjamin. He can’t… change his passion.”

Sandóval, of course, talked about football. We’re stuck in our clubs, a reality those who run them understand only too well, and often to our detriment. But when there’s a will to make things work, we get uplifting innovations like Arsenal’s.

When you consider the depths to which the modern game has sunk, it’s easy to get very angry – and with good reason. But while the majority of games remain mediocre to boring – if not exactly at Arsenal, as Christopher Clelland and Max Parsons are eager to point out – diverse people who celebrate life through football remain the best that planet earth has to offer and the Inclusion of this ilk is one of myriad little things that maintain that status. Well, who’s next?

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